Gökhan Bacık
Aug 09 2018

Why do Turks dislike the United States?

According to various polls, the United States leads the list of most hated countries among Turks.

Most recently, a poll conducted by Kadir Has University this year revealed that 60 percent of Turks see the United States as the number one threat.

According to the same study, Turks are now seeing Russia more positively.

Turkey and the United States have been allies since the early years of the Cold War, so this attitude is curious and requires an explanation.

Unlike many examples that we see across the world, the Turkish brand of anti-Americanism does not depend on a leftist or Islamist ideas, even though it incorporates elements of both.

Essentially, the Turkish brand of anti-Americanism is mainly crafted by political elites in line with their foreign policy agendas. Put it differently, anti-Americanism in Turkey is a reflection of state’s foreign policy agenda.

While crafting it, political elites use leftist or Islamist elements interchangeably according to their interest.

Indeed, anti-Americanism in Turkey has a sociological foundation. But the state also manages and even sometimes provokes this feeling in the country.

The weakness of civil society in Turkey has left the state almost as the monopolist caretaker of public opinion, particularly in foreign policy issues.

Yet, shaping public foreign policy perceptions has always been a critical issue in the Turkish state tradition, particularly in the modern period: The state always dictates whom to love or to hate in international relations.

The present day anti-Americanism also has its origins in the state and its foreign policy agenda. To repeat, the current anti-Americanism in Turkey is primarily a product of political elites rather than autonomous sociological dynamics.

So, how do the political elites feel free to employ this very harsh anti-Americanism in domestic politics?

Of many reasons, one is critical: Anti-Americanism is trendy in Turkey for it has been comparatively cost-free or low-cost strategy for Turks since the post-Cold War era.

Several crises or tensions have occurred between the United States and Turkey in the post-Cold War period, but none of them resulted in the form of complex U.S. sanctions. Thus, notwithstanding some strategic and economic costs, anti-Americanism has never been a very costly policy for Turkey.

For example, unlike the United States, Germany has comparatively been quick in imposing economic and military sanctions on Turkey. As a result, tensions with Germany are usually more costly to Turkey than the tensions with the United States.

For example, Berlin successfully brought jailed German journalist Deniz Yücel back to Germany. Yücel’s case is comparable to Turkey’s arrest of American pastor Andrew Brunson, in particular how Turkey makes such cases part of its foreign policy bargain with other states.

The United States’ comparatively lenient approach to Turkey, despite serious tensions, results from mainly two reasons:

To begin with, Washington has an established fear of losing Turkey. This fear makes the United States a patient ally. The main U.S. interest is to keep Turkey as ally in the long term and leads the United States to ignore many problems in the short term.

Secondly, the United States is a superpower while Turkey is at best a regional power. The U.S. economy is more than 20 times bigger than that of Turkey.

The power gap between the two allies creates peculiar low-profile responses from the United States to Turkey’s actions. Turkey is not a country to generate vital risks for the United States.

The U.S. decision to sanction two members of the Turkish government last week is probably a turning point in bilateral relations. But Ankara’s retaliation in the form of sanctioning two American secretaries is simply for domestic political calculations and has no international impact at all.

While U.S. sanctions against Turkish officials is real politics, Turkey’s retaliation is pride politics. What makes the two decisions different is the power gap between the United States and Turkey.

Unlike Bülent Ecevit, İsmet İnönü or Süleyman Demirel, former Turkish leaders who experienced the consequences of U.S. sanctions on Turkey, the present-day members of the Turkish political elite have no such experience.

Instead, their political memory is mostly limited with the post-Cold War period, when Turks have not faced any tough U.S. sanctions. That is a key reason why Turkish politicians can easily employ anti-Americanism when they need it.

The Brunson case is therefore quite symbolic for it is the first time that the current generation of Turkish politicians is witnessing a radical aspect of U.S. foreign policy towards Ankara.

Equally, the case is important for the United States to discover which diplomatic and other means are effective in solving problems with Turkey.

 

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